The terms “eat clean” or “clean eating” have been circulating on the interwebs – especially Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest – for a few years now. “Eat clean, train dirty” is a most popular CrossFit mantra. Every instagram model uses hashtag #eatclean alongside any picture of produce. Now several popular grocery stores are getting in on the trend – including Aldi, Trader Joes, and Kroger – and banning foods with certain ingredients from their stores. But what exactly does “clean” eating even mean? Obviously it means something more than washing your fruits and vegetables and eating food free of pathogens, although you should definitely also do this.
Start here: what exactly IS clean eating?
Clean eating is a cousin of the natural, paleo, whole foods diet concept. The basic idea is that you are eating whole, non- or minimally processed foods like vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, oils, and lean proteins. Unlike the paleo diet, clean eating does not seem to restrict any particular food group, so non-processed dairy, beans, legumes, and minimally processed whole grains are approved. And unlike keto or zone, clean eating doesn’t really place any restrictions on macronutrients, so your carb, fat, and protein ratios are up to you. Clean eating can, of course, transcend other diets like vegan, vegetarian, or gluten free.
Does it work?
Yes and no. Sticking to a diet rich in produce, animal protein, whole grains like quinoa and farro, and minimally processed foods like Greek yogurt and beans, you’ll be doing your heart and body plenty of favors. But just as with Organic Oreos (they’re STILL Oreos) and Paleo brownies (they’re STILL brownies, just made with different flour and sugar sources), it can be easy to keep around old habits that were causing problems in the first place. Replacing dessert (e.g. Famous Amos cookies) with “clean dessert” (home-made pudding with maple syrup) is still adding calories and sugar after dinner. Replacing Chex Mix or Chewy Granola bars with “clean”versions of grain based snacks or granola bars (which are candy bars by another name 9 times out of 10) is but a nominal change. It’s easy to be wary of chemicals and preservatives we don’t understand, but most of them are perfectly safe and are not the reason cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity affect so many people. The problem with frozen, highly processed meals or cheese-based, fish shaped snack crackers isn’t that they contain sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate. It’s usually the high fat, high carbohydrate content of the meals often devoid or very low in fruits and vegetables. It’s the corn flour and oil fried/baked and coated with dehydrated, powdered cheese.*
*Despite referring to Gold Fish in this manner, I still love them. But I have them about once a month. It’s about balance.
When thinking about a healthy diet, it IS important to focus on a lot of the “clean” foods, which are rich in nutrients your body needs. But it is ALSO important to make sure you’re eating enough but not too many calories, balancing macronutrients (I don’t care how “clean” your diet is, if it’s 60% fat or 80% carbs something isn’t right), and getting all your vitamins and minerals. It’s also important to enjoy foods you like every once in a while, without worrying if it meets Panera’s clean eating standards.
In a nutshell, avoiding preservatives and chemicals deemed “dirty” by your grocery store isn’t enough to ensure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet, and trying to avoid a long list of ingredients may not always be the best return on investment of your time and effort. But if you must, keep calories, macros, and vitamins and minerals in mind too.